I Knew Two Heroes

 
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Alan Dowd's Landing Zone As they do every five years or so when the calendar turns to June 6, presidents and prime ministers are descending on Normandy to commemorate the D Day landings. They will intone about the lessons of history and the need for partnership in the face of a new form of terror, wanting not just to draw parallels between today and yesterday but somehow to associate themselves with the heroes of Normandy. Of course, the more someone learns about D Day—and the more history that separates us from that pivot point—the clearer it becomes how unique that day and the men who lived it were. As FDR put it, in a prayer on that fateful day, for D Day’s men, “The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.” In the greatest air-sea invasion in history, the allies hurled 160,000 men, 5,000 ships, 2,300 planes and 840 gliders across the English Channel. They lost 2,400 dead in the first 24 hours. Somewhere in the mass of humanity that stormed the beaches, rode the seas and screamed through the heavens on June 6, 1944, were two who embodied the American fighting man of World War II. They gave flesh and bone to Churchill’s desperate dream after Dunkirk—“the New World, with all its power and might, step[ping] forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.” And I was blessed to know these two heroes. One was the son of a physician, a city boy who grew up in the middle class of Middle America. In keeping with his family’s Irish roots, he was a devout Catholic. (And staying true to form, he would be a lifelong Democrat.) He went to Notre Dame during the Depression but had to leave school and a promising golf career to take care of his family after his father passed away. There was no time for “finding yourself.” When war came, he enlisted as an officer in the Army Air Force. On D Day, he found himself in a C-47, towing gliders over Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. He never cussed. When someone said something off-color, he would leave the room. Indeed, even though he had to grow up fast, he had a childlike innocence about him always. He used to quip that he didn’t find out the big secret about Santa Claus until December of 1943, when he was deployed in England. Like so many of his generation, he was optimistic and patriotic, stoic and humble. There wasn’t a trace of pride in him. In fact, when his sons or grandchildren would ask what he did to earn the Silver Star his wife kept on display in the living room, he would always say, “The Army gave me that for being first in the chow line 30 days in a row.” Then he’d grin, take a sip of beer, and change the subject. I always suspected that was a cover story, since the medal is awarded “for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States while engaged in military operations.” As far as I know, no one ever pried the secret behind the Silver Star from his humble heart. Modesty, patriotism and optimism seemed hard-wired into that other D Day archetype as well. But the similarities would end there. Rather than coming from a patrician family, he was a dirt-poor farm boy from rural Texas. The Dustbowl and Depression had humbled his father and dashed his own dreams of independence. He could cuss with the best and worst of them. He was anything but stoic. And he was a lifelong Republican. Although raised a Southern Baptist, he wasn’t much for religion. He was bothered by the hypocrisy. “Anyone who tells me ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ isn’t worth my time,” he used to say. Yet he always respected those whose actions matched their words. He entered the Army Air Force just out of high school and quickly became a radio operator for a signals intelligence unit detached to larger units throughout the war. He was a radioman on thirteen B-26 missions before D Day. On one of those missions, he was shot down over the Channel. After D Day, he found himself trapped, along with the 101st Airborne, in Bastogne during the Bulge. He brought back more nightmares than medals—images of Dachau and dead buddies, starving civilians and crash landings. But the nightmares didn’t poison him. He somehow rose above them. On D Day itself, he punched through Fortress Europe in a glider, courtesy of a C-47. No one knows if it was Al Dowd’s plane towing Bill Eason’s glider in the predawn darkness of June 6. But I like to think these men were tethered together as they streaked into the unknown. I think about that moment often, especially around June 6. That’s because these “D Day everymen” were my grandfathers. I get my first name from Grandpa Dowd and my middle name from Grandpa Eason. Like so many of their generation, both have passed from this life to the next. But their story lives. It has some resonance beyond my family because of what these men were and what they became. I disagree with the notion that men like this are ordinary men who did extraordinary things. Rather, they did extraordinary things because they were extraordinary men, because, like silver-haired Clark Kents, they walked among us without pretense. They were extraordinary, simply and sadly, because there weren’t—and aren’t—many like them. As historian John Keegan writes in his History of Warfare, “Soldiers are not as other men.” And Normandy’s soldiers are not as other soldiers. They are better than the rest of us, but not because they wore a uniform. They are better than us because of what they did in that uniform. Ordinary men don’t topple dictators, liberate continents, rescue civilization and then return home as if they were on a long vacation. Speaking of vacation, that’s what takes most of us to Europe nowadays. When we go to a Europe without borders, without war, we should remember the dreadful journeys our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers made. They were there when the beaches of France turned red with blood. They saw smoke and fire rise over Belgium’s forestlands. They closed the killing camps and murder mills of Germany. And hundreds of thousands of them never made it back. Some say it’s wrong to put men like this on a pedestal, but I say it’s wrong not to. We need them there to remind us of the price of our freedom.
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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.